Wednesday, May 9, 2018

INFINITY WAR MIXES THE BEST OF SUPERHERO MOVIES WITH THE WORST OF SUPERHERO COMICS


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I’ve been in the tank for the Marvel movies since they started, and especially since the first Avengers movie blew away all my expectations and skepticism that you could ever translate the overstuffed, overwrought comics of my youth to the big screen. But if The Avengers was a supersized annual issue of the comic brought to rollicking life, Infinity War is something else – the sprawling, dozen-issue CROSSOVER EVENT that wove through several titles and roped not just a team, but multiple teams of superheroes from the far-flung corners of the Marvel Universe together to battle some cosmically overwrought threat. The Infinity Gauntlet, the source material for Infinity War, is probably both the most famous of these, and the dumbest.  The film is an improbably faithful adaptation in some ways, despite half of the characters from the comic not existing in the movie universe. It copies the most unique thing about the limited series, which is that the villain is essentially the protagonist and POV character, and somehow makes that work within a summer blockbuster framework, which is a remarkable feat of filmmaking in its own right.  But it also maintains the elements that made me largely indifferent to Marvel’s most epic event, even as a credulous, 10 year-old dork eagerly pawing his way through his cousin’s box of “classic” comics. 

In the comic, as in the film, Thanos starts out immensely powerful and then, by gathering the various Infinity Stones together in his big gold gauntlet, becomes all-powerful.  Not “essentially” or “practically” all-powerful, but literally, explicitly omnipotent. The writing goes out of its way to directly, repeatedly (“classic” superhero comics are nothing if not endlessly, repetitively expository) tell us that he has limitless power and control over time, space, and reality itself.  The series is best remembered for the big battle sequence where Thanos “kills” a dozen of the most famous Marvel heroes one by one.  In the comic, this comes after Thanos has snapped his fingers and killed half the intelligent life in the universe, while in the film, he lays mostly non-fatal waste to the heroes before the Snap itself does the work of wiping out half the cast.  But the problem is the same regardless of medium or order: it’s just too much.  So much that the mind, even the credulous, 10 year-old mind, rejects the premise entirely.

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"Thanos killed Spiderman and Thanos killed Iron Man and
 Thanos killed Wolverine and then Thanos looked at me!"

The biggest problem with comic-book storytelling in general has always been the lack of commitment to consequence, most glaringly in regards to death.  Killing characters is not the only way to give a story weight or stakes, but when an entire genre is built on the basis of constant, life-and-death danger and no one ever dies, that danger never becomes real.  But the problem is not so much that comics don’t ever kill people.  It’s that they do, but always find a way to take it back.  Which is worse than not doing it at all.  The better stories, like the X-Men’s Dark Phoenix Saga or say Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s more comic book-y story arcs, retain some semblance of lasting significance by maintaining the pretense of permanence for a longer stretch, and/or going through some contortions to make the resurrection an event unto itself.  This way, reviving the slain does not erase all the emotional fallout of the death entirely.  The worse ones, like Infinity Gauntlet, simply undo everything of supposed import that transpired.  These stories self-sterilize to the point where things can proceed as if they had never even happened.

And sure, none of these made up stories about people in tights punching each other really matter in the end.  But the art of telling them lies in creating the illusion that they do, that at least within the confines of this fictional world, the events being related have weight and consequence.  If we take half a step back, we know there is no way the Avengers, or James Bond or Tom Cruise, are not going to win out in the end.  But you obscure that fact by making the villain seem so powerful that it is not apparent how the good guys can beat them. And the way they triumph should always come down to more than just punching better than the other guy (see: the Dance Off To Save The Universe and subsequent Care Bear Stare from the first Guardians Of The Galaxy, or the bargaining loop from Dr. Strange).  But the Infinity storylines over-egg this pudding, by making the enemy so overpowered that the fisticuffs seem entirely pointless before they even begin.

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Again, the source is not subtle on this point

The movie starts by having Thanos thump the Hulk in hand-to-hand combat, which establishes him as the biggest, baddest threat the Avengers have faced in terms of raw physical strength. But as the comic ceaselessly reiterates, and the film makes clear from at least the point where Thanos demonstrates the Reality Stone’s power against the Guardians, he can instantly kill all the heroes with a thought. So the only way he can lose is if he wants himself to lose, which is an idea the comic plays with in a way that is interesting but not terribly satisfying, because it means the heroes’ efforts never really matter, and their “sacrifices” are both moot and phony.  It’s super obvious, super early on, that they are not going to be able to punch their way past him, but we still spend most of the story going through those motions again and again. 

The Snap similarly overshoots the mark of raising the external stakes for the rest of the fictional world.  If one of the biggest criticisms of the Marvel Universe is that it is too static, then wiping out half the life in the universe would seem, at first blush, to be a major corrective to that.  But it’s so major that even a soft child’s brain could intuit that there is simply no way that it wouldn’t be subject to immediate, wholesale take-backsies.  The touchstone for genre geeks when it comes to the type of downer cliffhanger Infinity War is shooting for is The Empire Strikes Back. But the difference in scale between the two is striking.  Sure, it was never likely that Han Solo would stay sealed in a rock forever.  But if somehow he had, the Star Wars universe could have gone on without him. It was, if not exactly plausible, then at least possible within that fictional milieu. There is just never any way that the Marvel Universe, on page or screen, is going to permanently shift to a post-apocalyptic landscape ruled by an untouchable, murderous God.  

Because of this, it’s clear that Thanos’s triumph does not just have to be “fixed”, the way defeating Loki or Ultron’s armies reverses the course of their earlier, successful campaigns.  It has to be literally, completely undone.  The question of “how” is barely even a question; what can done with a snap of a finger can and will be be undone with another snap.  The powers of the gauntlet are such enormous nonsense, that it is immediately evident that the only way the heroes will be able to triumph is via nonsense of equal enormity.  But returning to the Dark Phoenix example, even after comic book nonsense eventually brought Jean Grey back to life her death remained something that everyone remembered and was affected by. By contrast, the inflated extremity of the Gauntlet’s power all but guarantee that few if any of the characters will even be aware of the apocalypse they lived/died through when all is said and done.

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"Please...I'm not..ready....for naptime..."

And that sucks. But what is remarkable is that the movie generally works, in spite of the central dramatic thrust being so transparently phony.  It’s an odd, overstuffed beast for sure, and it did take me a bit to adjust to the tone.  I’ve long thought of the Marvel movies - with the exception of Black Panther - as comedies with action sequences more than action movies with jokes.  And IW can feel awkward in how it marries the goofiest, comic-book nonsense plot of any MCU film with the most portentous, heavy tone of them all. Even Black Panther's direct engagement with real world issues didn't require the eschatological sturm-and-drang with which IW requires everyone to treat Space Smurf's quest to complete his rock collection.  And the shift between Thor: Ragnarok, which was practically a Naked Gun-esque spoof of this genre-unto-itself, and the oppressive grimness of the opening scene of this film is especially jarring, as it grinds all the hope of its direct predecessor into dust.

But IW still finds plenty of space for humor, and since it is almost entirely character-based, it complements the heightened stakes more than it undermining them.  The cast is enormous, but exceptionally well-balanced and it’s impossible to give the Russos enough credit for making this feel like as much a Guardians sequel as an Avengers movie, while also not letting Dr. Strange take over the entire proceedings or Spiderman feel like he is being needlessly tacked on (though technically, he probably is). We take for granted how easy the MCU has made juggling movies full of characters who are headliners in their own right look, but it definitely is not.  Pretty much no matter who your favorite Marvel hero is, Infinity War gives them their due.  Okay, Ant-Man and Hawkeye are completely MIA, but c’mon, Hawkeye isn’t anyone’s favorite. I know because Hawkeye actually was my favorite growing up, and he ain’t even cracking my top 10 in his MCU capacity.

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Sorry, bud, but you got the giant megablockbuster franchise you
 wanted, instead of the smaller Netflix Series you deserved

Captain America and Black Panther don’t get a lot to do outside the big fight, but their supporting casts/settings get enough love that they still feel fairly central.  And even if they hadn’t, just the shot of the two of them sprinting out ahead of the line as the army charges into battle is enough to cement their stature within this pantheon.  So on balance, it doesn’t matter much if you are a particular partisan for the Iron Man or Guardians or Thor or Dr. Strange or Captain America or Spiderman or Black Panther subfranchise, or even if you just really love the Hulk or Vision or Scarlet Witch, you have no reason to feel slighted by IW. That alone is simply phenomenal, even after ten years of these movies adding plate after spinning plate without a hitch.

What sells that, and this entire endeavor, is the miraculous impeccability of the casting across dozens and dozens of roles.  When you have a megamovie with 45 important characters and the biggest casting missteps could credibly be considered to include Don Cheadle (who is great being his affable self, but imo never quite sells Rhodes as a military man) and Carrie Coon (who is the best actress working in my books, but wasted in a henching capacity), that's simply incredible.  Okay, the actual weak link is probably the perfectly serviceable Sebastian Stan, but the point stands.  The cast of the MCU is a legitimate wonder of the modern world, and the Russos have proven so masterful at shifting the Rubik's Cube of characters into new, wildly entertaining configurations that they are able to constantly, unobtrusively scratch the itch that lies at the heart of our infatuation with franchise filmmaking – to provide the comfort of the familiar, but also surprise us with it.  Stark and Spiderman are a proven combo at this point, and we could have guessed that he and Strange would be fun together. But who would have thought Rocket and Thor would yield such great results?  That we would get a great moment between Captain America and Groot?  Stark and Wong?  Starlord and Thor, or Rocket and Bucky(‘s arm)?  
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Of the many things that crack me up about this character, none compare to imagining the DC
Studios folks periodically being overcome with jealousy that Marvel has the  kleptomaniac
space raccoon to lean on while they struggle to make their sexy Aquaman movie work.

At this point, none of the work the actors are doing with these characters is exactly revelatory, with the possible exception of Josh Brolin as Thanos.  He still looks exceedingly goofy, but the performance is remarkable for its subtlety.  Somehow the translation from the page removed all the cruelty from the characterization without lessening the megalomania or evil, which if you can figure out how that even works, please explain it to me.  But it does, and turns what had been probably the biggest flaw in the entire MCU fabric into one of the best villains in the genre. I'll still take Killmonger and Loki ahead of him, but that he's even in the race is incredible after the wet fart of his initial teases.  Brolin and Zoe Saldana deserve the most credit for stapling the absolute absurdity of the plot to something approaching an emotional core.

But the movie is packed to the gills with others doing fantastic, if quick, work. Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany do a hell of a job selling a ridiculous relationship that raises all sorts of odd anatomical questions, and was also mostly developed off screen.  Bettany in particular continues to ground the most outlandish piece of this universe in understated strength and grace, while Dave Bautista remains the improbable comedic MVP of the entire franchise, and sneakily strong on the dramatic end to boot. Chris Hemsworth has been playing Thor impeccably for years, but I never expected anything as affecting as when he is recounting all he has lost, in very short order, to the foul-mouthed cartoon raccoon. The way he goes through the paces of his trademark bravado, but with all the joy hollowed out of it, brings to mind the old actor adage about the way to convincingly play drunk is to be trying to act sober and failing.  It’s funny (“Well, he’s never fought me twice”), and a handy catch-up for the audience that hasn’t boned up on his subfranchise recently, and quietly heartbreaking, which are two adjectives that I never would have thought to apply to the character.  Thor was always my least favorite Avenger on the page by a wide margin, but Hemsworth has edged him up to close to my tops on screen, which without slighting some very deft writing by the Russos and Taika Waititi, is mostly down to old fashioned movie star magic.

On a similar tip, it’s gotten very easy to take Downey Jr. for granted, but somehow he is far from phoning it after a decade of these big, corporate green-screen-aploozas.  My best guess is that the ever-expanding cast of superstars to play with is enough to counteract the boredom from playing the same character for literally the tenth time.  But who knows really, maybe he’s just an uber-professional, so long as the barges full of money are being dumped on the beaches of his private archipelago. In any case, watching his performance in IW, I was struck by how his signature characters are so slick and motor-mouthed that all he has to do is shut up momentarily and we intuit just how hard they are working not to lose it entirely.  You can see it at Strange’s house as he realizes his greatest nightmares are coming true, or with his wordless gulping after getting impaled by Thanos.  


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Then on the other end of the subtlety spectrum, there is Tom Holland’s (apparently improvised) death scene.  For all the reasons I pontificated about up top, I started out yawning my way through the final sequence, but when he started pleading and apologizing as this teenage kid felt his life slip away, it hit like a ton of bricks.  Which is my reaction to the entire film in miniature. I can identify every single reason that none of this should mean anything at all, but after a decade and 20 movies with this incredible cast, it’s impossible not to get swept up as they perform the living hell out of the nonsense.

Friday, March 30, 2018

ON THE AMERICANS, AND TELEVISION TIME JUMPS


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The premiere of the final season of The Americans may have broken my brain.  Not because its spycraft was more complicated or opaque than previous years, but because everything about its structure should have pissed me off, and somehow none of it did.  That structure was built around a 3 year jump forward from last year's finale, during which various important characters started new families, jobs and relationships.  Now, leaps forward in time can be a fun and jarring tool in show’s toolbox.  But, in my opinion, the time to do them is in the middle of a run.  LOST and BSG did this to great effect at their own midpoints.  The Americans had previously done one themselves in their 4th season episode “The Magic Of David Copperfield”, a jump that was all the more effective because it came not just in the middle of the overall run, but toward the middle of the season, and even with some time to run in the episode itself to establish the new, altered status quo.

In a properly deployed jump, everything hinges on that new status quo.  Like any plot twist, it has to be surprising enough to pique the audience’s interest, but also feel natural enough that it doesn’t feel like the writer is just trying to cop out of storylines that had petered out (which of course, they are).  It is a show doing what the movie industry now calls a “soft reboot”, and regardless of the medium the motivation is the same – a feeling that particular arc had become a drag, but the general premise or characters retain enough promise to warrant different stories being told about them.  This didn't become commonplace until recently, because prior to the digital age of serialization, every episode of a show was essentially a soft reboot.

Given that, the worst time to do a jump would seem to be at the outset of the final season of a heavily serialized, plot-heavy drama like The Americans.  The end of such a show is where the unique advantages of serialized TV are poised to come fully to bear, advantages that are tied directly to the rather strict sense of continuity.  There have been years to build slowly and organically to the climax that is now arriving.  As we enter the home stretch, characters should already be locked into their final collision courses, and slow burning fuses finally reaching their explosive payloads.  The Americans in particular has had five years to methodically set this table, and for it to be in need of drastic resetting at the 11th hour seems indicative of extremely sloppy, aimless storytelling.  Like you couldn't craft a proper ending for the show you'd already made, so you're frantically working to remodel it into a show that fits the ending you have.

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Just look at all the new information the premiere asks the audience to process in the span of an hour.  The set-up around the peace summit and Dead Hand project is not all that different from prior seasons establishing Star Wars or stealth research or bioweapons as the focal point for the year’s espionage.  But even if this aspect would exist to some degree without the time jump doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a compounding effect on all the other changes the viewer has to contend with.  Stan’s new wife and Paige’s new duties are fairly straightforward progressions from where we left them, but Stan has also changed jobs since we saw him last, as has Oleg, who also has a brand new wife and child.  The Aderholts also have a new rugrat, and apparently a relationship with the Jennings.  And while Paige had met Claudia before we left, the two of them suddenly being so chummy was a jarring shift.

It's not that this is too much information for the audience’s wee brains to handle, or that the new developments are incoherent or unbelievable within the world of the show.  Just that with so much change taking place in the offscreen gaps, it invites the question of what was so wrong with the show that they felt it necessary to revamp it so fully right when it should be entering the home stretch.  Or at least, I feel like I should be wondering about that, given my general attitudes toward serialization and continuity.  But the new developments still feel right for the characters and conflicts the show has developed over the years, even if the plotlines that developed them have been swept aside.

For example, I feel like it should bother me that the final conflict between Philip and Elizabeth is air-dropped into their laps 10 episodes from the end of a 75 episode run, by two factions we are just introduced to, who are squabbling over a macguffin we haven’t heard of before.  The analytical part of my brain says that if such big, sudden moves are necessary to set off the climax, it means you haven’t been using the serialized format correctly for the prior 65 hours.  But it didn’t feel off at all while I was watching it.  I think that’s partly because while Dead Hand has not been a plot point that was developed studiously throughout the prior seasons, the capriciousness of the Centre’s operations and the Jennings’ divergent reactions to that have been built into the series from the start.

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On a similar track, if it feels abrupt that the new dynamic of Philip in “retirement” while Elizabeth shoulders the entire spy load basically reaches it's boiling point the moment we actually get to see it for the first time.  On paper, this looks like the show skipping over showing us how this scenario creates a separation within the marriage in favor of just telling us that it has, which is antithetical to the most basic principle of drama.  But it doesn't feel like cheating, in part because the phenomenal performances by Mathew Rhys and Keri Russell communicate such volumes about the drastically divergent paths the characters have traveled with so little dialogue, and mostly because the core of the division is not unfamiliar at all.  It doesn’t matter much that the show didn’t decide whether Star Wars or bioweapons or stealth bomber tech or this Dr. Strangelove machine that would be focus of the Jennings’ final mission until that mission began, because the show has never really been about the USA and the USSR.  It was about Philip and Elizabeth, and what was clear from the start was that this marital Spy Vs. Spy scenario was where the story needed to go in the end, and that the rift between her hardliner stance and his idealism would be at its core.  That an internal Soviet plot against Gorbachev brings that split to a head, rather than Philip attempting to defect to the US, is a turn in the road I didn’t see coming, but the destination still feels inevitable.  And that is the hallmark of the best plotting; when I couldn’t really predict the end in advance, but I feel like I could have with hindsight.

The Americans’ latest time jump highlights is how the details of the conflict’s plot development are completely arbitrary.  And that is fine, if the core of the conflict remains true and rooted in proper character development.


…and your wig game is tight as f***.


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Friday, December 29, 2017

BEST OF 2017: BOJACK HORSEMAN

1.  BOJACK HORSEMAN (NETFLIX)

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Streaming services and DVRs have abounded in recent years with so-called “sadcoms” - half hour explorations of depression, ennui and the pretensions to artiste-ery of people who resent having made their names in the low arts of comedy.  I’ve repeatedly ragged on these shows for being full of themselves, and there’s something perfect about how the funniest show on TV is a half hour exploration of the depression, ennui and pretensions to artiste-ery of a cartoon horse who resents how he made his name in the low art of comedy. 

It’s also better at exploring that depression and ennui than just about any show on TV (last year, I compared it, favorably, to Mad Men more than its more direct cartoon peers).  Despite being entirely consistent in both its comedic and emotional ethos for 4 seasons, it still surprises that some of the most affecting things I saw this year revolved around the disintegrating marriage between a woman and a deranged golden retriever, or the mid-life crisis of a workaholic cat racing against her biological clock with the help of a fertility app voiced by Harvey Fierstein (the voice you want to hear rasping “Let’s put a baby in you!”).  And as I puzzle over why that is, I am struck by the idea that it is the animation that makes not just the jokey jokes, but the heavier emotions hit harder.  With the auteur-driven “sadcom” – a Louie, a Maron, an Insecure, a Master Of None (takes breath…), a Better Things, a One Mississippi,  a Girls, even some I really enjoy like Atlanta – the examinations of despair, addiction, prejudice, grief and other Real Issues can seem to carry an inescapable whiff of self-indulgence.  And I think a lot of that is related to how we know the face on the screen, our guide through this exploration of Real Issues, also belongs to the creator, writer, executive producer and possibly director of this particular exploration, playing an at-best thinly veiled version of themselves that probably shares their first name.  It feels like they are, to use Bojack’s vernacular, “fetishizing their own sadness”.

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So the “heavy” sitcoms that work best for me tend to be the ones that have the auteur/stars playing roles that may be recognizable as their sort of character, but are definitely characters – like Baskets or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. They also tend to have a slightly larger cast to mitigate the solipsistic nature of the more autobiographical material.  Bojack’s animated nature works at once to obscure those autobiographical (and thus potentially self-aggrandizing) elements by adding another layer to the performances, and to sprawl the scope past the myopic perspective of the main character, and to embrace the abject silliness that helps cut through any hints of pretension or treacle.  I know I’ve said some similar things about Brockmire, Rick And Morty, and The Good Place throughout this list, and in other pieces before it, but I am adamant about this point:  comedy should be funny.

And Bojack Horseman is really, screamingly funny.  The grim psychological, and cultural*, insights at the base of the show never get in the way of delivering constant laughs, or drown the basic, hard-won hope  - as opposed to optimism - at its deepest core.  There are certain fundamental truths that Bojack never loses sight of, no matter how bleak an episode’s final punchline may be.  That the unfairness of life is both unrelenting and also really silly. That happiness is possible but really, really hard.  And that stupid puns paradoxically get more worth it as their setups grow increasingly tortured and byzantine.  It can be devastating, but it’s also the only sadcom where I always want to see the next episode right away.

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Watch It For:  “Popular actor and soundtrack artisan” Zach Braff being burned alive and eaten by Jessica Biel.  Although it is a refusal to eat an avocado, rather than said act of cannibalism, that derails her campaign for governor of California.



*This season had an entire episode called “Thoughts And Prayers” all about a bunch of disingenuous cartoon ghouls using that meaningless phrase to ignore any inconvenient fallout from constant mass murders, which was released months before Las Vegas saw everyone calling out GOP lawmakers for that exact thing